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If God Never Changes, Why Was He Once So Cruel?
by Daryl E. Witmer
A: Well, for starters, we would have to disagree with the characterization of God as ever having been cruel.
Q: Then you should read Psalm 137: 9, 1 Samuel 15:3, and Ezekiel 9:6. In each of those texts, God appears to either bless or actually outright order pregnant women to be ripped apart (isn’t that abortion?) or little children -even infants- to be killed in horrible ways, such as being dashed against rocks. Today we identify and decry barbarous acts like that in places such as Rwanda and Darfur as being absolutely immoral and ungodly. In fact, to intentionally inflict harm on innocent civilians violates even the Geneva Conventions.
A: Today we live in a world that is a world apart from the world which God created. All humanity is badly sin-fallen. And sometimes drastic situations require drastic solutions. Taking corrective measures may even at times involve that which is the lesser of two evils. In such cases, God may simply stand back and allow certain evil forces to run unchecked for awhile in order to restrain further evil. At other times He may assume a more direct role. But God alone, by definition, is the self-authorized arbiter of what methods of judging evil are justifiable. No man or agency of men, operating apart from God’s standards of morality and justice, will perpetrate evil today with impunity for any reason.
In some of the Old Testament cases mentioned previously, live babies and children were being sacrificed on burning hot altars. Having such nations and even their children killed outright may have actually spared the children a greater degree of physical misery.
Q: Well, why does God ever allow evil at all? Why doesn’t He situate us in a best possible (sinless) world?
A: Perhaps allowing evil for a time is the best way to get to a best possible world without evil, given the present sinful state of affairs.
Q: But in the New Testament God is almost always portrayed as gentle and loving. Not so in the Old. How can that be if He never changes?
A: God’s nature never changes. His approach may change. In the Old Testament His judgment on sin was often very specific and immediate, i.e. in this life, within history. In New Testament times His judgment became more consequential and eventual – after this life, beyond history, i.e. yet to occur at the end of this age.
Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer writes: “God’s judgments abide, but His method of managing them has changed. He is neither more tolerant nor more accommodating to our weaknesses.”
Lutzer then proceeds to use the illustration of a four-year-old boy who was once caught stealing candy from a store. His father gave him a spanking. But if the same lad were to steal candy at the age of twelve; the father might choose to give him some other form of punishment, such as a loss of privileges. If the boy repeated the practice at age twenty, there might not be any immediate consequences pending a future date in court. Lutzer points out that the father’s view of thievery has not changed, but rather the way he chooses to deal with the infraction from one period of time to another. And God’s opinions [of sin] have not changed; His penalties are yet severe. But there is a change in the timetable and method of punishment. Lutzer concludes: “The more carefully we look at the Scriptures, the more we become aware of the unwavering consistency of God and His intention to punish sin. He hates it just as much today as ever.” -from Ten Lies About God by Erwin W. Lutzer, ©2000 Word
Q: But there appears to be so many more references in the Bible to God’s formerly harsh approach toward sin.
A: Well remember that the New Testament spans only 100 years of time while the Old Testament spans approximately 4,000 years of time. Don’t overlook the fact that God is notably loving, gracious, and forgiving in Old Testament times (Exodus 34:6-7; Jonah 3:10, Psalm 145:8, Lamentations 3:32-33). Nor that He often warns about His eventual judgment on evil in the pages of the New Testament (Matthew 7:21-27, Matthew 10:28, 33; and, 2 Peter 3.7, Revelation 20: 11-15). The amazing thing may not be so much that some women and children were formerly impacted by God’s wrath as that anyone has ever been a beneficiary of His mercy. His mercy is undeserved. He proceeds to judgment with reluctance (Ezekiel 18:23). Yet in the end, not because He is cruel but because He is holy, He will judge evil. This is all effectively summarized in Numbers 14:18.